A story of pilgrimage and mercy in the South

Growing up in the South is often as charming as it appears in magazines and movies. Long summers, sweet tea and my grandfather’s pecan pie are not just the stories you hear about in books. To me, these are the experiences I have lived my entire life.

What you historically do not think of when you read about the South is the Catholic Church. While the Church was thriving in the Northeast and Midwest during much of the 20th century, it was often considered a foreign religion to many parts of the South. My Irish Catholic grandparents and my wife’s Italian Catholic grandparents were considered the minority in Tennessee and Alabama, respectively, but neither family wavered in raising their children in the faith of their homelands. This type of conviction was held by many Catholic families in the South — and is heroic in hindsight — but to them, it was just what we believe.

Catholicism in the southern United States is a story that often goes untold in Church history.

But if you look closer, you will find a story that is filled with radical redemption, unwavering evangelization and profound mercy. It is the perfect story to embrace during this Year of Mercy, and so recently, I decided to do just that.

Understanding Holy Doors

In the later part of 2015, as Pope Francis ushered in the Year of Mercy, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory announced that the Archdiocese of Atlanta would celebrate this unique jubilee in big way. While many dioceses around the world have opened up one set of Holy Doors like the doors at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the archbishop decided to open seven Holy Doors in the archdiocese of Atlanta. The point of these seven doors was not to one-up neighboring dioceses but rather to call on the faithful of Atlanta to make a pilgrimage and to rediscover their relationship with Christ and his Church.

This was the unexpected opportunity God was giving me to embrace the Year of Mercy in a truly different way. I have made many pilgrimages over the years to incredible places like Rome, Jerusalem and Lourdes, France, but now I was being given the opportunity to make a pilgrimage in my own backyard.

The first thing I needed to figure out before starting my pilgrimage was what exactly a Holy Door is and why it is so important. I remember seeing Pope St. John Paul II usher in the Jubilee Year of 2000 when I was in the seventh-grade. It seemed to make sense when he did it. The pope pushing open two huge doors that appeared to be made of gold is an epic way to start a jubilee year, but what significance would there be for me to do the same in 2016?

Luckily, my archbishop in Atlanta laid out the importance and significance of the Holy Doors during a jubilee year in a brochure, which explains, “A Holy Door, or porta sancta, was first used in the 15th-century as a ritualistic expression of conversion. Pilgrims and penitents pass through a Holy Door as a gesture of leaving the past behind and crossing the threshold from sin to grace, from slavery to freedom, and from darkness to light.”

Once I read this, I began to understand the purpose of the Holy Doors and what impact they could have on the spiritual life of a boy raised on sweet tea and his mother’s rosary. This pilgrimage quickly became about rediscovering conversion in my life through the Church community that surrounds me everyday.

Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Atlanta

My journey took more than one day because Atlanta is a huge city. The first set of Holy Doors I visited was the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Atlanta. This was a parish I am familiar with because I remember serving the homeless through their St. Francis soup kitchen in the church basement as a teenager.

As I walked through the Holy Doors, I did not feel anything profound — maybe a little high school nostalgia. It was not until reading the plaque outside that I was reminded of why this building is a beacon of mercy in Atlanta. The plaque tells the story of why this building is the second oldest in the city. In 1864, when Maj. Gen. William Sherman marched to the sea in his infamous campaign, he came toe-to-toe with Father Thomas O’Reilly, the pastor of this parish.

Pope Francis on Pilgrimage
“The practice of pilgrimage has a special place in the Holy Year, because it represents the journey each of us makes in this life. Life itself is a pilgrimage, and the human being is a viator, a pilgrim travelling along the road, making his way to the desired destination. Similarly, to reach the Holy Door in Rome or in any other place in the world, everyone, each according to his or her ability, will have to make a pilgrimage. This will be a sign that mercy is also a goal to reach and requires dedication and sacrifice. May pilgrimage be an impetus to conversion: by crossing the threshold of the Holy Door, we will find the strength to embrace God’s mercy and dedicate ourselves to being merciful with others as the Father has been with us.”

Father O’Reilly had been ministering to both union and confederate soldiers throughout the Civil War, and many of the soldiers in Sherman’s army were fond of Father O’Reilly and this church where they would often attend Mass. Father O’Reilly convinced Sherman that if he did not spare this church (along with other buildings nearby), then many union soldiers would desert the army in protest. Father O’Reilly’s pleas and good works were heard and seen by Sherman. As a result, not only was the Catholic building spared, many nearby Christian churches, the courthouse and even city hall survived the burning of Atlanta.

As an Atlanta Catholic, this story reminded me that I have a role to play in demonstrating mercy and being an advocate for mercy in the community. I am sure Father O’Reilly did not feel like a hero, and he may even have felt desperate at the time, but the reality is that he acted and was a champion for mercy in a very bleak situation. His courage led one of the most infamous military men in American history to choose mercy over pride.

My prayer as I left the shrine was for the Lord to give me the courage to trust in the power of mercy heroically like Father O’Reilly did in 1864.

Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Atlanta

My second pilgrimage stop was just around the corner from the shrine. The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is the only basilica in Georgia and was elevated to this status by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.

As I crossed through the Holy Doors, two things struck me. The first was how ornate this parish is compared to many churches in the Archdiocese of Atlanta because of the time in which it was built. The second was the tribute to Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, who visited the parish in 1995.

These two elements of the parish are striking and point to what this whole Jubilee of Mercy is all about: that the Church is more than beautiful buildings with incredible art. The Church is beautiful because of the missionaries like Mother Teresa who live mercy every day with every act of love and service they provide.

My prayer at this stop was to love the poor in my midst radically like Mother Teresa did when she came to Atlanta.

Monastery of the Holy Spirit, Conyers, Ga.

My third stop was the farthest away, the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, about 30 miles southeast of downtown Atlanta. The Trappist monastery was the most refreshing of my stops, because monastic life is a calm in the storm of daily life. I brought my little boy and my wife along for this stop, and we treated it as a family retreat day.

As I crossed through the Holy Doors of the monastery, I was engulfed in silence and serenity. The church is simple but magnificent, and it made me feel small in comparison to God but still able to attain a high level of prayer to him.

As I prayed at the monastery, I asked God to always show me mercy, and in return, for me to always be merciful to my family. I imagined how the monks must embrace mercy within their community in order to progress in holiness, and I prayed that this same virtue would radiate through me into my household.

St. Philip Benizi Church, Jonesboro, Ga.

The Holy Door at St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro, Ga. Courtesy photo

The fourth stop on my journey was St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro, Georgia. This was another parish I was very familiar with as a teenager because it was close to my high school.

As I walked through the Holy Doors at this Franciscan parish, I was in awe of the parishioners themselves. This parish is one of the most diverse in the Archdiocese of Atlanta. It was the perfect image of what it means to be the universal Church. It shows how far Atlanta has come as a community.

What inspired me was how everyone was reaching out to their fellow parishioners before and after Mass on Saturday evening with great joy. It was as if the Holy Doors were decorated to welcome me home to a party with my family.

My prayer at this stop was to always be joyful to my fellow man. Oftentimes, joy is the greatest mercy we can show our neighbors.

Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Church, Norcross, Ga.

The Holy Door at Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Church in Norcross, Ga. Courtesy photo

The fifth set of Holy Doors I experienced were at the Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Church just northeast of the city.

This stop was easily the most unfamiliar for me. The language and culture barrier made it difficult, and yet there was a comfort in knowing that I was still at home in a Catholic parish. The sites and sounds were different, but the experience of God’s love was the same.

My prayer at these Holy Doors was to always come running back to the Father of mercy no matter how far away I might feel. I prayed that I would see God in places I would not normally, and for my heart to always be expecting God in the unexpected places I encounter daily.

Our Lady of the Americas, Lilburn, Ga.

The Holy Door at Our Lady of the Americas Mission in Lilburn, Ga. Photo courtesy Michael Alexander, Archdiocese of Atlanta

The sixth part of my pilgrimage brought me to Our Lady of the Americas in Lilburn, Georgia, a parish that is home to many of Atlanta’s Latino population that have immigrated to the United States. This parish is a testament of how much my southern town has become an international city. This parish was so rich in culture.

As I walked through these Holy Doors, I prayed to be united with the immigrants, refugees and the most vulnerable in our society. I prayed that God would have mercy on our country and unite our society. I prayed that I may always welcome a stranger so that one day God will have mercy on me and do the same in eternity.

Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta

My final stop was to the Cathedral of Christ the King in an area of Atlanta called Buckhead. The cathedral is very small for the size of our city because when Atlanta became a diocese, there were few Catholics in north Georgia.

The history of the property is fascinating and tells another story of Christ’s mission of mercy in the South. The cathedral property originally belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. When Atlanta became a co-diocese with Savannah in the 1930s, the first bishop purchased the property in hopes of redeeming the land and ridding the area of hatred. It’s a story as old as Christianity, which often has conquered pagan sites and redeemed them as places of mercy.

These Holy Doors are the most special to me of all the stops, because the cathedral is my home parish. I am able to walk through these Holy Doors every week. They are the doors I entered when I first met my wife. They are the doors I entered when I proposed to her. And they are the doors I entered when I married her. Every Sunday, I enter these doors to return home. I enter as a sinner in need of God’s mercy. And every Sunday I find rest in the Lord.

I wish I could tell you my prayers from this stop, but they are too many. My need for God’s divine mercy is ongoing, and so my experience of these Holy Doors is ultimately one of thanksgiving. I am thankful I have a place to always return home and experience mercy the same way the prodigal son does in the Gospel.

When I arrive to the Holy Doors at my cathedral parish every week, I get the same feelings I did as a kid pulling up to my grandfather’s house. No, Monsignor isn’t waiting inside with a pecan pie for me. But the mercy and love of a grand Father is waiting on me.

This pilgrimage across my great city has reminded me of the great ways in which God always has been present and molding his Church in the South. In a region that has a less than perfect history, I have found a glimmer of hope that has always been here: the Catholic Church.

I have found champions of mercy at every turn in my fellow parishioners. I have found faithful believers that have been praying for justice and mercy for years. My pilgrimage to the seven Holy Doors of Atlanta helped me find a city leaving the past behind and crossing the threshold from sin to grace, from slavery to freedom and from darkness to light.

Stephen Lenahan writes from Georgia.